Wednesday, January 04, 2006

January 3, 1959

On Jan. 3, 1959, President Eisenhower signed a proclamation admitting Alaska to the Union as the 49th state.

Alaska is a land rich in natural resources and wilderness beauty. It has proven itself a profitable addition to the United States; however, both the purchase of Alaska and its fight for statehood were surrounded by controversy. Nearly one hundred years elapsed between the United State's purchase of Alaska in 1867 and the day its people were finally given the rights and benefits of statehood.

During that century, Alaska's natural resources were exploited by outside business groups and entrepreneurs, while Alaskans were denied self-rule and were taxed without representation in congress.

William H. Seward promoted the Alaskan purchase during Andrew Johnson's presidency, as part of an even more ambitious "manifest destiny" than the original hope of stretching from "sea to shining sea".

[Seward] negotiated a purchase price with Edouard de Stoeckl, the Russian diplomat. They settled on $7,200,000. This came to 12.5 cents per acre for a plot of land twice the size of Texas.

At the same time that he was negotiating a price, Seward was negotiating on another front too. The Congress of the United States hadn't yet made up its mind to make the purchase, but Seward finally convinced them. By one vote, the Senate appropriated the money, and the US bought Alaska. On October 18, 1867, the Russian flag was lowered and a United States flag was raised over the city of Sitka, Alaska.

Even though Congress had approved the purchase, many people still questioned whether it was worthwhile. They called Alaska "Seward's folly," "Seward's icebox," and the "polar bear garden."

Seward disagreed. One time he was asked what his greatest accomplishment was. He answered, "The purchase of Alaska! But it will take a generation to find that out."

The next hundred years saw pioneers and gold-seekers and timber companies and canneries and finally, the military, arrive and utilize Alaska's resources and position, while proposals for self-government were repeatedly denied. At first, Alaskan statehood was championed by individuals and politicians within the forty-eight contiguous states and the Alaskans themselves showed little interest. But slowly, the people became informed and engaged in impassioned discussion. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner printed parts of Edna Ferber's novel Ice Palace.

The passages featured the character of Thor Storm, the grizzled Nordic pioneer, informing his granddaughter, Christine, about the legacy of Seattle and San Francisco cannery operators' unmerciful exploitation of Alaska's fisheries. Ferber's book had sold well and widely. Ice Palace had such an educative effect on the nation's populace that one critic was moved to refer to it as "the Uncle Tom's Cabin of Alaska Statehood."

And finally:

No one savored the prospect of paying federal taxes yet remaining, in effect, a stranger to the Union. Another series of Congressional hearings about Alaska's situation instilled in many Alaskans an interest in more aggressive action. Such enthusiasm ultimately brought about the 1955 Constitutional Convention, held in the newly appointed "Constitution Hall" on the grounds of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. It was here that Senator Ernest Gruening delivered his galvanizing "Let Us End American Colonialism" address. The convention received phenomenal national exposure and was praised by numerous journalists for its idealistic attention to "the good of Alaska" rather than partisan politics. The convention was an intensely emotional event for all involved, as passions about the future of Alaska ran strong and deep among convention members. In 1956, the resulting Constitution--which the National Municipal League called "one of the best, if not the best, state constitutions ever written"--was overwhelmingly accepted by Alaskans.

- all excepts from "Alaska For Sale" by Sharon Fabian

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